The History of Hurricanes in the Gulf Coast

Katrina, Andrew, Camille. The names are familiar to us, but often their origins are not. How do hurricanes form? Where do they get their names? Katrina is the most recent hurricane to devastate the Gulf Coast, but people living there have been going through a cycle of devastation and rebuilding for centuries.

The Origins and Science of Hurricanes

The word hurricane comes from the Spanish explorers of the New World. On their travels through the Caribbean and Mexico, they were told of an evil god of winds and destruction called Huracán, Hunraken or Jurakan. In carvings and sculptures done by the Tainos of Cuba, Huracán was shown as a head with no torso and two arms spiraling out from its sides in counterclockwise spirals. The shape closely resembles those of the spiraling hurricanes seen in satellite images. Yet these figures were made hundreds of years before the form of hurricanes was "discovered" using meteorological radar during World War II.

Today, the word hurricane is used to describe a tropical cyclone with maximum sustained surface winds of at least 74 mph. In the Northern Hemisphere, the winds swirl around the eye of the storm in a counterclockwise direction, and in the Southern Hemisphere, the winds swirl in a clockwise direction. Since water needs to be warm for a hurricane to form, the number of hurricanes peak in the summer and early fall when the sun shines most directly.

In order for a hurricane to occur, many ingredients must come together. First, warm air rises rapidly from the ocean. This water vapor forms storm clouds and the rising air is replaced with warm, humid air from the ocean below. This cycle continues, moving heat from the water to the atmosphere. Then, winds coming from different directions collide and push more warm, moist air upward. This causes the circulation and the winds of the storm to increase. High pressure air from above is sucked into the low pressure eye of the storm, causing wind speed to increase further.

Once the hurricane forms, there are three main parts of the hurricane: the eye, the eyewall and the rain bands. The eye is the calm, low-pressure center of circulation. The eyewall is a deep, thick ring of clouds where the most violent winds and heaviest rains are found. The rain bands are bands of thunderstorms circulating out from the eye. They are part of the cycle that provides the energy that feeds the storm.

The Naming and Ranking of Hurricanes

In 1953, the U.S. National Weather Service started naming tropical storms and hurricanes, but the practice originated hundreds of years earlier in the West Indies. There, hurricanes were named after the particular saint's day on which the hurricanes occurred. For example, Hurricane San Felipe struck Puerto Rico in 1876. Before the United States started using names, they used latitude-longitude positions to keep track of hurricanes, but this proved confusing and cumbersome.

When the U.S. National Weather Service first started naming hurricanes, all storms were named after women, but in 1979, men's names were added into the rotation. One name for each letter of the alphabet is selected (except for Q, U, X, Y and Z) and the names alternate male-female. Names can be English, French or Spanish, the major languages spoken bordering the Atlantic Ocean. There are six lists of names, one per year, that are reused every six years. If a hurricane is particularly devastating, the name of that hurricane will be retired and replaced with a new name. If there are more than 21 named storms in a year, the National Weather Service will use letters of the Greek alphabet.

Atlantic hurricanes are ranked on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Intensity scale. Category 1 has wind speeds between 74 and 95 mph, Category 2 between 96 and 110 mph, Category 3 between 111 and 130 mph, Category 4 between 131 and 155 mph and Category 5 has wind speeds of 156 mph or higher. Categories 3, 4, and 5 are referred to as major or intense hurricanes.

Major Hurricanes on the Gulf Coast

Since 1900, 40 major hurricanes have crossed the Gulf Coast. Here are some of the most devastating to hit the area in the past 150 years.

  • Last Island (1856) - This hurricane submerged Isle Derniere, or Last Island, a resort island off the coast of New Orleans. Buildings were destroyed, the island split in half and 200 people died. A single cow was the only creature on the island to survive the storm. Now, the island is a haven to pelicans and sea birds. The storm also brought more than a foot of rain to New Orleans. Many fields flooded with salt water and much of the rice and orange crops were lost.
  • Chenier Caminanda (1893) - This Category 4 storm made landfall at Chenier Caminanda, Louisiana (between New Orleans and Port Eads). With storm surges of up to 16 feet and strong winds, 2,000 lives were lost. There was also $5 million in property losses; shipping was destroyed as were the rice and orange crops. The hurricane then traveled over southeast Mississippi and weakened to a tropical storm by the time it was over Alabama. This was the third deadliest storm known to occur on the Gulf Coast.
  • Galveston (1900) - The deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, the death toll was between 8,000 and 12,000. Galveston, which before the storm was called the "New York of the Gulf," was completely destroyed. For political reasons, the U.S. Weather Bureau ignored warnings from Cuba's hurricane forecasters. The mixture of 140 mph winds, large storm surges and debris from falling buildings proved fatal. Those who survived the storm had no recollection of being warned.
  • Galveston and New Orleans (1915) - Two strong hurricanes within weeks of each other caused destruction along the Gulf Coast. The first storm hit ground at Galveston in August and brought strong winds and heavy rain all along the Gulf Coast. After the 1900 storm, Galveston built a sea wall to protect itself, but the storm still caused 275 deaths and $50 million in damages. The second hurricane, a Category 4 storm, made landfall at Grand Isle, Louisiana in September, causing 275 deaths and $13 million in damages, $5 million in New Orleans alone. After this storm, people in New Orleans questioned whether the 10-foot levees were tall enough to protect them from future storms. Along the Lower Coast (south of New Orleans), levees were washed away and coastal towns inundated.
  • Louisiana and Mississippi (1947) - Strong winds and rains ran along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts. A 15-foot storm surge overcame the Bay St. Louis seawall and much of New Orleans was flooded, causing $100 million worth of damage. Some 51 people died in Louisiana and Mississippi. After this storm, levees were built along the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain for future protection against flooding in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.
  • Betsy (1965) - This Category 4 storm came ashore at Grand Isle, LA with 15-foot storm surges and winds of 160 mph. Storm surges rose up along the coast as far east as Mobile, AL. In New Orleans, a 10-foot storm surge caused terrible flooding and $1.4 billion in damage in Southeast Louisiana. Along the coast, 81 people died, 58 of them in Louisiana. As a result of this storm, the existing levee was raised to 12 feet.
  • Camille (1969) - The most intense hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States, with winds of up to 200 mph and storm surges of up to 24 feet. There were heavy winds and flooding along the Gulf Coast, with Mississippi sustaining the worst of the damage. The coast of Mississippi was flooded and 3,800 homes and businesses were destroyed. Ship Island, off the coast of Biloxi, was split in two. The body of water between the two halves is now known as "Camille's Cut." The total damage from the storm was $1.42 million and 143 people died in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. An additional 153 people perished due to heavy flooding in Virginia.
  • Andrew (1992) - After slamming into south Florida, Andrew came ashore again on southern Louisiana where seven people died. About 1.5 million people evacuated and the storm caused $1 billion in damages in Louisiana. At its peak, the storm was a Category 5. It killed 23 people.

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